Seeing the Other Side: Publishing, Kerfuffles, and Empathy

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” — The Great Gatsby

Another day, another crisis in publishing. Feels like that sometimes, anyway. Authors behaving badly, publishers behaving badly, fans behaving badly, event organizers behaving badly. There’s always something to blog about.

Sometimes the issues seem pretty clear-cut. An author has said some vile thing at someone else, publicly. Or a publisher isn’t paying their authors. Or an agent has absconded to Tahiti and now the IRS is making some phone calls. Whatever it is, there’s typically more than one side to the story. And when you’re an observer, it can be easier to see all the sides to the story, as you read blogs and tweets and facebook posts and watch the story unfold.

But obviously not everybody’s an observer. The crisis has to come from somewhere. There are often many parties involved, with several sides to take. And when you’re in the middle of a crisis that is directly impacting you, it can be difficult to see any viewpoint other than your own.

I would venture to say one of the more important characteristics for a writer to have is empathy. The ability to understand how someone without your particular background, beliefs, and attributes might react to something, and how the situation might appear to them, is critical in writing rich and varied characters. For instance, if you are white, and you have a black character in your story, it behooves you to be able to understand how race can impact one’s experiences and shape one’s character and judgement. Otherwise you’re likely to write stock characters, cliches that don’t reflect anyone’s actual experiences.

Which is why I find myself sometimes surprised by the lack of empathy in some of these kerfuffles, especially from writers. I’m surprised that people find it difficult to understand that the circumstances they find themselves in are not universal, and that others may hold differing opinions as a result.

Say an issue came up where there was what appeared to be an obvious moral high ground. Stand tall, do what’s right, perhaps take a bit of a hit for it, but you know in the end you did the right thing. Sure. That’s a fine opinion to hold. Moral high ground is a good place to be. And sometimes the opposite of the moral high ground is getting a cheque, and how great are you for sacrificing money in the name of what’s right? That’s great. I’m sincerely glad you’re able to stand tall on that issue.

But when you’re documenting your stance on the issue, consider including judgement of others in that statement. Not everybody has that same luxury. Most people, I’d wager, would like to remain on the moral high ground, but that can be challenging when a cheque means food on the table, or back-taxes paid, or finally getting to handle that costly medical procedure. Are they horrible and morally unsound simply because they took the money out of sheer necessity? Not everybody has had the same advantages that you’ve had.

I certainly understand that if you’re caught up in your own concerns it can occasionally be difficult to see the other side. But that’s what we as writers are challenged to do — to see viewpoints beyond our own. And we should challenge ourselves to really consider the experience of others. So the next time you’re putting your two cents in on the newest kerfuffle, take a breather before you post, and consider what the other side is seeing.

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